Anna Rossi lives by one simple rule: don’t get attached, don’t get hurt. But Alec Flynn doesn’t play by the rules…
Anna never takes on a massage client without screening him first, but the paycheck offered by billionaire Maxim Stein is too good to turn down. Stein is the richest man she’s ever laid her hands on, and despite the risks, she trusts that she can take care of herself. After all, she’s handled difficult clients in the past. What she isn’t prepared for is getting caught in a compromising situation by Maxim’s tall, dark, and gorgeous bodyguard—or the desperate desires he awakens in her…
Alec is dangerous. The mysterious, hard-bodied man is completely irresistible and won’t be refused, no matter what walls Anna puts up to protect herself. But as Anna falls fast for his careful ministrations and mind-blowing skills, she begins to realize that giving herself over to a man with so many secrets isn’t just putting her heart at risk—it’s endangering her life…
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Ichewed the straw sticking out of the plastic lid of my fountain Coke and inspected the sandstone wall, draped with ivy and fragrant white jasmine that curved around the street. It was 4:55 p.m., still over a half hour before my appointment. Typically I showed up a little early to get a feel for the place and set up, but on a first meeting, especially with a client like this, I wasn’t about to be late.
Maxim Stein was the richest man I’d probably ever get my hands on. When his assistant had called my personal cell phone to make the appointment, I’d done my research.
He came from old money, as my dad would have said. An international string of hotels and island resorts. Some professional sports teams scattered throughout the world. When his father died, he branched out into aviation—private jets, specifically. He was now the sole owner of Force, a company that manufactured custom airplanes for an exclusive international clientele. Forbesmagazine had called him “a Force to be reckoned with.” Too bad he was fifty and on wife number three.
Twice I’d driven past the guard station, just to make sure I had the address right. I’d never been there, but had lived in Tampa just long enough to know Davis Island was a mile above my pay grade. When I’d told my friend Amy about where I was heading, her eyebrows had disappeared beneath her curtain of platinum blonde bangs. Now I could see why.
With its extravagant bayside mansions and gated communities, Davis Island was a hidden refuge close enough to downtown to be accessible, but far enough away to feel like its own world. And it was a world I’d never experienced before—each multimillion-dollar house I’d passed seemed to come with its own gardener trimming the hedges, a security station at the end of its driveway, and a shiny black SUV with tinted windows. My little red Kia was going to get a complex if we stayed out on the street much longer.
The A/C was probably draining my gas tank, but I didn’t care. It was better than showing up drenched in sweat. I pointed all the vents in my direction and thought about how Baltimore, where I’d lived last, was probably covered in snow by now.
February in Florida was awesome.
Besides the constant buzzing of a lawn mower behind one of these mystery walls, the neighborhood was quiet. With a few minutes to spare, I rested my head back against the seat and closed my eyes.
And was scared half to death when a hard knock came at the passenger-side window.
“Shit!” I grabbed the cup I’d dropped on my lap and stuffed it into the holder before any Coke could spill.
A man was looking through the window at me. My throat tightened; I hadn’t even heard him approach. He stood and walked around the back of the car, placing one hand on the trunk like the damn thing belonged to him. As subtly as I could, I pressed the automatic lock button.
You couldn’t be raised by a cop and not end up at least a little cautious.
The man reappeared on my side and tapped again on the window with his knuckle. With the sun behind him, his face was shadowed, but I could tell he was wearing dark glasses that matched his black slacks and button-up shirt. From my vantage point he looked tall, over six feet.
And built. The way he filled out his shirt didn’t escape me. Lean, hard muscles stretched across his chest and shoulders had me wondering what he looked like beneath the thin, pressed fabric.
I cracked the window.
He chuckled and slid one finger slowly over the glass edge. “Is this supposed to stop me from getting in?”
I retrieved the mace spray from the pocket in the driver-side door and flashed it where he could see.
“No, but this should.”
He laughed a little louder, a deep, smooth sound that made my skin tingle, and then he leaned down, hands resting on top of the car.
We were face-to-face through the glass, and for one drawn-out moment, all I could do was stare. Unruly waves of coffee-colored hair framed an angular jaw that was lined with dark stubble. His nose was the slightest bit crooked, like he’d broken it once, and though his sunglasses hid his eyes, I could feel the heat of his gaze holding me in place. He might have been younger than thirty, but there was a confidence and intensity in the way he moved that seemed older.
He was sexy in an I-don’t-give-a-fuck kind of way.
I was unable to look away from his mouth, curved in a teasing smirk, or from his full lower lip that I had the sudden urge to bite. I could imagine that mouth pressed against my shoulder, following the line of my collar and then lowering. Just the thought of it made my breath catch.
“Maybe this window’s thicker than I thought,” he said, giving the glass a little flick.
“What?” I gripped the wheel and tore my gaze away to look straight ahead. I didn’t know what had gotten into me. Men, even undeniably attractive men like this one, didn’t normally get me going like that. Clearly it had been a while since I’d gotten any.
“I asked if you were lost.” He was smirking again, and I nearly groaned. I’d been so caught up staring that I’d missed what he said.
Across the street, a woman walked her two Maltese. She was probably double his age with a pile of white curls on her head, and was shamelessly staring at his ass as he leaned over my car. He must have heard the dogs yapping, but he didn’t even flinch. It was like he knew she was looking and either didn’t care or was so used to being gawked at, it didn’t even faze him.
Probably the latter.
“No,” I said quickly. “I was just . . .” I pointed down the road, feeling the blush rise in my cheeks. “I have an appointment with someone.”
“In the street.”
Apparently he thought he was funny.
“No,” I said. “In their home.” Not that I needed to explain this to a stranger.
His tongue glided over that bottom lip, and I had to press my thighs together to stifle the sudden need burning low in my belly. He was gorgeous—mesmerizingly so. Never had I had such a reaction to someone before. Usually I was the one making others squirm.
His voice lowered. “When’s your next opening?”
“You don’t even know what I do,” I said suggestively. He wanted to play? Fine. Bring it on.
He kept running his first finger over the top of the window, making me wonder just what else those hands were capable of.
“You’re right,” he said. “But I bet it’s bad.” The growl in his voice sent a heated shiver through me. I rolled down the window another six inches.
“Why would you say that?” I licked my lips.
He leaned closer, like he was about to tell me a secret, and I scooted to the edge of my seat.
“You’re parked in a no-parking zone,” he whispered.
His hand left the window to point at the street sign parallel to my spot. Some cop’s kid I was; I hadn’t even noticed it. With that, he tapped the hood of my car and stood. Whatever chemistry I’d sensed building between us snapped in half.
Who was this guy? Part of the neighborhood watch or something? I fell back in the seat, deflated.
I turned the key in the ignition, and the series of clicks from the engine immediately reminded me that the car was already on. Perfect. I checked to see if he’d noticed, and of course he had. His grin stretched wider.
I gave him a little wave. “Thanks.”
He took a step back as I put the car in drive and eased off the curb. He must have lived in one of the houses in this neighborhood. I was probably blocking his giant SUV from pulling out of his hand-laid cobblestone driveway through some hidden Batman gate.
Thanks? I asked myself, the sound of his laughter fading behind me. Nice one, Anna.
Still, I couldn’t help but admire his build in my rearview mirror—long legs; broad, sculpted shoulders. He stood with his arms crossed over his chest right where I’d left him in the middle of the street like he could stop traffic. Hell, he probably could. Maybe he was captain of the neighborhood watch, but he was seriously hot. I was almost sorry when he disappeared from view as I rounded the corner.
Ipulled into the driveway I’d scouted earlier, and stopped at the guard station just before a tall wrought-iron gate. A guy with a buzz cut in a black suit jacket, way too heavy for today’s temperature, stepped out, making note of my license plate. I cleared my throat and sat a little taller, remembering that Mr. Stein’s assistant, Ms. Rowe, had said I would have to check in out front.
I rolled the window all the way down, and was hit by a blast of humidity and the sweet jasmine fragrance from the white flowers hanging over the gate. I caught a glimpse of myself in the side mirror—I hadn’t even reapplied my lipstick. Neighborhood Watch had seriously thrown me off. I consciously tried to push him from my mind, but my body still buzzed from the smooth sound of his voice accusing me of being bad.
If I wasn’t already booked, I might have turned around and showed him just how bad I could be.
No, it was better this way. He was arrogant, probably used to women bending over backward and doing whatever he wanted, just because he was so damn sexy. I didn’t mess around with men like that. I needed the upper hand, to call the shots. Anything else was too risky.
The guard approached my window.
“Hi, I’m Anna Rossi. I have a five thirty appointment with Mr. Stein.” I made a conscious effort to sound professional; people didn’t always take women in my line of work seriously.
The guard looked at me for the first time—his close-set eyes immediately dipped to my cleavage. I pulled up the collar of my black cotton V-neck subtly, used to people looking but not always welcoming the attention. I was a natural C cup, and curvy enough to draw a few stares. He gave a little snort, and I felt my mouth pull into a thin line.
“Yes.” I forced a smile. This guy had a serious creep factor. It probably served him well in his position guarding this fortress of a house.
“Mr. Stein’s assistant is expecting you. You can park in the lot by the gazebo and ask for Ms. Rowe.”
The lot by the gazebo? How many lots were there?
“Great, thank you.” I pulled forward as the gate slowly opened to reveal a stone fountain, spraying water fifteen feet into the air. The driveway circled around it, taking me past one lot lined with the required black SUV and two tiny two-seater sports cars—bumblebee yellow and candy-apple red—and a slick Harley.
My mouth fell open as I passed the house. Carved from beige sandstone and surrounded by slender palm trees stretching all the way to the roof, it looked like something that belonged in the Mediterranean rather than the United States. Two white marble pillars framed the Venetian doors and held up a second-story balcony where ivy and bright purple flowers cascaded over the ledge. Ceiling fans spun lazily over the porch and the windows were round and made of bright blue glass.
I eased past the gazebo, a quaint wooden seating area between what I assumed was a guest lot and the main residence. Six empty spots waited for me and I chose to park right in the middle, facing a wall of lush greenery.
Quickly I pulled down my visor mirror and reapplied my lipstick. I had naturally bronze skin, but the Florida sun had made it even darker; Amy had completely changed my color pallette at the salon where we both worked since I’d moved here. My smoky eye shadow had held up in the heat, and my dark, wavy hair was still somewhat tame, despite the humidity. Apart from the lipstick, I looked pretty good.
When I stepped out of the car, I felt as if I’d entered some remote area of the world. None of the noises from the street could be heard, even the wall leading to the guard station was hidden behind the landscaping.
A little giggle built inside of me. Even if Mr. Stein didn’t like what I had to offer—and I was sure he would because I was good at my job—this was going to be one to remember.
Just as I popped the trunk open, an older man in a gray suit, complete with tails, appeared beside me. With a quiet nod, he motioned toward the back of my car.
“Do you need assistance, Ms. Rossi?” He was eyeing the portable table, folded in half within its black carrying case. It took up most of the room in the back of my car, even with the seats folded down.
“No,” I said, making a mental note to tell Amy about the butler. “I’m used to hauling this stuff around. Thanks, though.”
“I insist,” he said as I hauled the table out by its nylon handle. With a shrug, I passed it to him, feeling guilty when he bowed sideways to lift the strap over his narrow shoulder.
With a heave, I grabbed my matching black duffle and knockoff Coach purse and followed Jeeves toward the house.
“Thank you,” I said, waiting for an opportune moment to take back the table without wounding his pride.
“Of course, Ms. Rossi,” he said, and swung his leg awkwardly to accommodate the heavy load.
“How long have you worked for Mr. Stein?” I asked as we followed the stone path past the gazebo. Sweat was beginning to bead on his brow, and I felt the urge to make conversation to take the focus off the obvious fact that he had bitten off more than he could chew.
“Some time, I suppose.”
I was fairly certain he was trying to be cryptic, not just struggling for breath.
“This is my first time here,” I said. “My name’s Anna.”
“Yes, Ms. Rossi.”
“And your name?”
“Here we are,” interrupted Jeeves. We’d climbed the front steps of the building and stepped through the double doors into the main foyer. It was a house straight from the movies: Dark marble floors, surrounding an indoor pond filled with koi, were textured by tiles of carved wood. On the opposite side of the expansive entryway was a wall of glass, and though I was twenty feet away, I could see the pool with its stone waterfall and the bay behind it.
“Breathtaking, isn’t it?”
I turned to find that Jeeves had vanished just as silently as he’d come and been replaced by a woman in her late thirties with a severe brunette bob and a killer French manicure. A phone earpiece hung from the collar of her snug red wrap dress. She made me more than a little self-conscious of my black yoga pants and matching T-shirt.
“You must be Ms. Rossi.” She shook hands like a woman who was used to doing business with men. “You came highly recommended from my stylist, Derrick.”
Derrick was the manager at Rave salon, where I worked during the day. He had assured me this would be a good connection, convincing me to break my usual rule of meeting the client at the spa first.
“Anna, please,” I said. “And you must be Ms. Rowe.”
“I am,” she said, making it clear I wouldn’t be using her first name. This didn’t bother me; Derrick had mentioned she was a little tightly wound. “Mr. Stein is still in a meeting, so if you’ll follow me upstairs, I’ll show you where you can set up.”
“Sounds great.” I was ready to get started. No wonder Mr. Stein needed a massage; I was stressed and I’d been here only five minutes.
Ms. Rowe departed without looking back, gliding across the floor in her red pumps as silently as she’d arrived. I picked up the table, crossed the strap over my chest, and followed her up the dizzying steps to the loft.
We passed an open seating area and a bar, and entered a wide hallway lined with antique mirrors and decadently framed oil paintings of landscapes. Track lighting on the ceiling highlighted each piece of art. I sucked in my breath, trying not to bang into anything with all my cargo.
“You’ll be meeting Mr. Stein here,” she said, exiting through a door at the end of the hallway onto a veranda, where we were greeted by the blue waters of the bay and the afternoon sun lowering in the pink sky. I dropped the fifty-pound table case to stretch my back, and walked to the railing, breathing in the sweet scents from the flowers hanging in red pots from the ledge and the chlorine from the pool below. Cool air misted in from the revolving ceiling fans, making the temperature comfortable.
“What I wouldn’t give for a view like this,” I murmured.
Ms. Rowe snorted. “You should see the house in Naples.”
“Naples, Florida?” I asked with a grin.
“No,” she said, clearly not a fan of sarcasm. “Italy. The Steins have six homes.”
At the mention of Maxim Stein’s wife, I turned. “Will Mrs. Stein be around this evening?” I was hoping to take her on as a client as well.
“Mrs. Stein stays at the flat in New York.”
From the sound of it, Mr. Stein didn’t join her there.
“There is a sink in the washroom just inside, and an iPod dock here if you need music.” She pointed to a beige box embedded into the wall.
I nodded. If I’d known that I wouldn’t have dragged my portable system from the car.
“Anything else you need?”
“Just a body.”
She smiled tightly. “You will, of course, be compensated for staying late.”
“That’s not what I meant,” I said, feeling a little guilty for cracking jokes. “Please tell Mr. Stein to take his time. I can be here as late as he needs.”
It wasn’t exactly true. I had my second date with Randall at nine, but I wasn’t too worried about canceling. He was cute enough, but he didn’t exactly do it for me.
Not like I was sure Neighborhood Watch could.
Ms. Rowe had judgment in her eyes. It was almost like she was reading my mind.
“Now, if you’ll just sign this.” She handed me a clipboard, and I felt my brows lift in surprise. “It’s standard for all of Mr. Stein’s employees, domestic or otherwise.”
“Domestic or otherwise,” I repeated, scanning the form. Is that what I was? A domestic employee? No one had told me I’d be signing anything besides maybe a tax form, and looking over the items on the list, I could see why.
“Um,” I said. “I’m not going to steal any of his things.”
There were a dozen more items equally as offensive, almost laughable. I guess they had all made the list for a reason, but I was still shocked to see that I couldn’t pick any plants without written permission from the landscaping crew or take photographs of any of the art.
She placed a hand on her bony hip. “You can have your lawyer review it, but I assure you . . .”
“No,” I said, reading through the rest of the list and signing on the dotted line. Ms. Rowe had offered $300 for this hour, three times my usual house-call rate, and I wasn’t about to blow it. “It’s fine. But if you’d like to contact my references, they can assure you I’m professional.”
“I already have, and they already have.” She snatched back the clipboard as soon as I was done. “I’m glad you understand.”
The earpiece hanging around her neck lit up blue, and she placed it in her ear.
“Mr. Stein will be up as soon as he’s done. Make yourself comfortable. His meetings have been known to run long.” She said the last words through her teeth, obviously annoyed.
I sighed as she closed the door behind her, glad she was gone.
“Somebody needs to get laid,” I said to myself, realizing I wasn’t in much better shape after the way I’d reacted to Neighborhood Watch outside. Then, resolving to enjoy this beautiful house and a big fat paycheck, I started setting out my supplies.
The table, a gift I’d bought myself after I’d finished massage school, was the Cadillac of tables—big, plush, and expensive. When I’d decided I wanted to do work in people’s homes, I’d taken the plunge and made the purchase. It was worth every penny; more than one client had told me it was softer than their bed.
After that, I laid out my oil and three bottled aromatherapy scents for Mr. Stein to choose from. Lavender, cinnamon, and sandalwood. I preferred the last—it was soothing; I even had sandalwood-scented shampoo—but few clients chose it. I could almost guarantee Mr. Stein would choose cinnamon. Men usually did. It made them think of sex.
It made me think of Christmas, but whatever. I wasn’t a guy.
After setting up my iPod and laying out the sheets, I filled a silver basin with water from the washroom and set a towel and a bamboo box of salt scrub for Mr. Stein’s foot treatment beside it. People generally felt pampered by the extra service, but the truth was, I preferred knowing their feet wouldn’t stink like four-day-old socks when I went to rub them.
Mr. Stein had yet to make an entrance when I’d finished. For a while I admired the view, awed by the setting sun and the explosion of pink and orange lighting the horizon, but as the sun disappeared, I went to check the watch I’d left in my purse—6:10 p.m. He was forty minutes late.
Curiosity getting the better of me, I walked the length of the veranda, coming to a descending staircase at the far end. I glanced over my shoulder, but there was still no sign of my client, and since exploring wasn’t explicitly forbidden in the contract I’d signed, I made my way down.
Maybe it was because the grounds were so quiet, but I found myself trying to keep each step silent—not hard to do in the leopard-print ballet slippers I was wearing. When I reached the bottom, I followed the stone steps to an adjacent cottage, fashioned in the same open, airy Mediterranean style as the house. I listened for movement from upstairs, and hearing nothing, I moved a little closer, spotting an entrance cut through the house to a deck over the bay.
“Just a quick look,” I told myself, feeling a little reckless.
I walked through a small courtyard with another smaller stone fountain, straight out to the deck, taking in one last view of the sunset. Behind me, long white linen curtains blew in the breeze, and below, the water lapped against the pier. The place was truly incredible. I could only imagine what some of Mr. Stein’s other houses were like.
I was just about to turn back when I heard something behind me: the distinct, rhythmic slapping of skin on skin, and a woman’s throaty moan.
“Harder,” she ordered.
I ducked without thinking.
“Yes,” she said. “Like that. Don’t slow down!”
The slapping sound quickened and was accompanied by her cries of pleasure.
I swore silently. What had I been thinking, coming down here? This wasn’t my house. I hadn’t even met the owner yet. And now I’d just blindly walked into someone’s fuckpad. There was no way I was making it out of this one without getting caught.
I hid behind the wall like some teenager trying to sneak out her bedroom window, and leaned out around the corner to see if my exit was clear.
The courtyard was no longer empty. A woman with red hair, completely naked and angled away from me, was bent over, gripping the smooth white stone of the fountain while a man in only a white collared shirt rammed into her from behind. Just past them, the door of a room had been flung open, and scattered across the ground were articles of clothing.
The tempo increased. Slap, slap, slap, slap.
I ducked back around the corner, trying to unsee the man’s clenched white ass, and the woman’s hard, fake breasts that barely moved as he fucked her. I was sure they hadn’t seen me, or at least if they had, they didn’t care, because he began to grunt, and she began to shriek, and as strange and wrong as it was, it made me hot as hell.
For just a flash, I imagined myself bent over that fountain, but instead of this guy, it was Neighborhood Watch and his hard body behind me. His hands gripping my hips. His teeth nipping my ear while his hard cock speared into me over and over.
“Goddammit, I said harder,” demanded the woman.
I snapped out of my trance and searched for a way out. The man had to be Maxim Stein. Who else would be having sex out in the open on this property? I’d caught a glimpse of his silver hair—I recognized that from the pictures I’d seen of him online. The woman was clearly not his wife, though. Maxim’s wife was petite, blonde, and in her midfifties, not nearly ten years younger with red hair. Besides, according to Ms. Rowe, Mrs. Stein was in New York.
I blew out a tight breath. I was probably going to get arrested. Or sued. There went my massage license. There went my three hundred bucks for rent.
To my left near the end of the deck was a door, and I crawled toward it, praying it was unlocked and that it would lead me out of there unnoticed. Rising to my knees, I tried the handle. Apparently I was luckier than I thought. The door pulled outward with just a slight whine, and I crawled within, checking carefully first to make sure the room was empty.
It was an office; an antique mahogany desk sat in the center of the room, backed by a wall of bookcases filled with hardcovers and trinkets. I made my way across the room to another door, but this one was unfortunately locked.
“Shit.” I was going to have to wait it out. Hopefully, when they finished, which should be soon, I could sneak back to the veranda and wait for Mr. Stein.
If Ms. Rowe hadn’t already come searching for me.
I padded quietly over the plush carpet, glancing over the contents on the desk. There was a slim leather file case and a pile of papers, spread over the glass top. It looked like the design of an engine. I couldn’t help but be intrigued. My father liked to rebuild car engines, so I was used to seeing schematics like this from time to time. The layout of this one was obviously different—I assumed the design was for a plane engine, not a car, since that was the business behind Maxim’s considerable wealth—but they were similar nonetheless. The bottom of each document was stamped with a narrow emerald leaf, standing out in contrast to the black and white designs, and the words GREEN FUSION.
They were still going at it outside, so I made my way to the shelves to look at the framed pictures. It was definitely Maxim Stein in the courtyard. Maybe I hadn’t seen his face, but I could tell from his hair and build that the man I saw and the man holding a fat silver perch on a fishing boat in this photo were one and the same.
There were other pictures here as well. Maxim receiving awards. Maxim giving speeches.
Maxim with his arm around the shoulders of a handsome man half his age with dark chocolate hair and a cocky little smirk.
I moved closer to the photograph, careful not to touch it. The man I’d met in the street was pictured wearing a black leather jacket, looking away as though being called by someone. He was younger, maybe twenty-one or twenty-two, with shorter hair but more scruff on his jaw. Though he was still undeniably sexy, there was a tightness around his eyes, a wariness he was trying to hide with that grin. It wasn’t obvious, at least not to a beaming Maxim, but I could see it. The mark of someone who was waiting for the other shoe to drop—a look you disguised so that no one asked why. I’d perfected that cover. It was how I’d survived for as long as I could remember.
It looked like they were on a college campus somewhere. Maxim was probably a donor there.
I spun as the locked door clicked, and then slid inward. My chest tightened. I nearly considered running back outside, but held my ground, knowing running would just make it worse. I was so busted.
Then, as if I’d conjured him with my thoughts, I found myself face-to-face with the very man I’d been lusting over since my arrival.
“I should have pegged you as someone who liked to watch,” he said, that smooth voice rich with sensuality.
He wasn’t wearing his sunglasses now. His eyes were dark blue like the bay, and just as intense as I’d imagined. I was pinned to the spot by his gaze, cheeks heating from being caught, skin growing damp from the hard look of his body. My eyes dropped to the open collar of his white dress shirt. The lines of his throat collided with a swell of muscle that disappeared beneath the pressed fabric. Just the top of his collarbone was revealed, and my fingers itched to trace it, to spread his shirt open so I could see what would surely be the impressive physique beneath.
I wasn’t the only one enjoying the view. He devoured me with his eyes, leaving me feeling naked and wanting. His thumb tapped against his thigh, the only betrayal of his composed facade. The tension in the room became so thick I could barely breathe. Surely he had to feel it sizzling between us.
He moved closer, steps fluid like a jungle cat, and sat on the edge of the desk, an arm’s length away. At five foot four I wasn’t short, but even though he was seated, I had to look up to him. He made no sign that he could hear the sounds of sex just outside, but I could. I’d never been more uncomfortable, embarrassed, or turned on.
He crossed his arms over his muscular chest, knees spread, and because I was suddenly envisioning myself kneeling between them, I stepped back, tearing away from the pull he had on me.
“What are you doing here?” I managed.
His mouth turned up in a grin. He had a dimple on one side that was somehow cute and erotic at the same time. The shadows of worry I’d seen in the picture were hidden now. Maybe he’d exorcised those demons. If they were anything like mine, I doubted it. Experiences that gave you a look like that marked you for life.
Not that I presumed to know anything about him.
He tilted his head, as if trying to read my mind.
“I was just about to ask you the same thing.”
I tried to concentrate on his words, but outside, the woman began a series of staccato cries, matching each thrust.
“Yes,” she cried. “Yes! I’m coming. Don’t stop!”
“I got a little lost,” I said.
He glanced to the paperwork on the desk, a frown flashing quickly across his face. It made me nervous.
“What were you looking for in here, Anna?” His voice had hardened.
My brows lifted. He knew my name. It shouldn’t have stirred up the butterflies inside me—he was Mr. Stein’s security, or bodyguard maybe. He’d probably known who I was since he had approached me on the street.
“I was just trying to get out of the way,” I said truthfully.
His eyes narrowed. “To hide.”
I felt a chill cut through the room. That wary look in his eyes returned, just for one unmistakable moment. The sudden urge to smooth the lines between his brows with my thumbs took me by surprise.
“I wasn’t here to steal anything, if that’s what you’re thinking,” I said.
“Why would I think that?”
I placed my hands on my hips, feeling the defensiveness creep up inside me.
“I signed the papers. No stealing. No picking the flowers. No feeding the fish.”
He gave a little snort and relaxed again, turning the papers facedown on the desk. I wondered what was so important that he was trying to hide—I could care less about engine designs, plane or otherwise—but I reminded myself that one didn’t become a millionaire without being a little bit paranoid.
I cleared my throat. “Are you his son?” It occurred to me how twisted this was if it were true. At sixteen, I’d walked in on my parents in bed, and all two seconds were enough to leave permanent scars.
He shook his head. “I work for him.”
That was a little better, but not much.
He stood and, before he could get too close, I backed into the bookshelf. The pictures rattled, and I spun to hold them in place before any fell.
He stepped closer. I could feel his body behind me. Fighting the image of us naked, I turned slowly, my throat dry.
“What do you do, exactly?” I asked weakly. He was close enough to touch. I kept my hands down at my sides, fearful I would forget myself if I touched him, aware that my breasts, heaving with each breath, were just inches from his chest.
Part of me couldn’t believe this was happening. He’d gone from hot to cold to hot again in seconds. I should have told him to back off, but either I couldn’t or I didn’t want to.
“A little of this, a little of that.” He smelled so masculine; the kind of scent that made me want to rip his clothes off and rub against him.
I was losing my mind.
“That’s cryptic,” I said, focusing on the desk behind him. “How did you find me?”
He stepped even closer, and my breath caught. Slowly, our bodies aligned, chest to chest, his cock, hard and heavy, against my stomach. His mouth was inches from mine. My nipples were so tight they were painful as they rubbed against the clothing between our bodies.
“What are you doing?” I asked breathlessly.
He shifted, and I nearly groaned from the friction.
“It makes you hot, doesn’t it? Listening to other people fuck.”
The way he said it brought an intense ache between my thighs.
“I . . .” I couldn’t admit the truth, could I? I’d never been in a situation like this before.
“Or is that what you want?” he continued, all traces of his grin gone. “Being taken like that, out where anyone might see you?”
No one had ever said such dirty things to me before. I should have been offended, but it just made me want him more. His arms lifted, caging me in as he gripped a shelf behind me.
“I wouldn’t share you, not even like that.” His lip skimmed my ear. “Your body, your sounds, they’d be all mine.”
I sagged against the bookcase, feeling my knees begin to wobble. Who was this man, talking to me like this? It felt like something out of a dream. The kind where I woke up wet and empty, with the sheets twisted around my sweating body.
He glanced up, just for a second, and retrieved something from the top shelf. Backing away slowly, he held out the object for me to see. A small video camera. My suspicions were confirmed; he wasn’t just head of the neighborhood watch, he was Mr. Stein’s security.
That was twice he’d made me feel like an idiot. It was beginning to get on my nerves. I stepped away, out of the hold he had on me. My breath came a little easier with the distance, but not much.
“Let me get this straight. You’re following me, and probably those two as well,” I tilted my head toward the courtyard, where Maxim gave a hoarse shout, “and I’m the voyeur.” I could feel his eyes on my back.
“Yes, but I get paid to watch.”
“Doesn’t make you any less of a pervert.” I pulled my hair over one shoulder to give him a clear look of my back and waist, and was pleased when I heard him draw in a quick breath.
“Never said I wasn’t a pervert,” he said. “Maybe we can explore that some time.”
We were both stalled by a sudden silence in the adjoining courtyard. I turned.
“Maybe,” I said. “If you can get me out of here.”
He moved to the door where he’d entered. “Follow me, Anna.”
He placed one finger on his lips, and I followed him in silence through a bedroom, where more clothes were tossed on a four-poster, and through a side door that went around the back of the cottage. From there we walked quickly to the staircase I had come down earlier, and I cut ahead of him in my hurry to get to the top. I stopped after a few steps when I heard he wasn’t following.
“Looks like you know where you’re going,” he said, grasping the side railings with both hands, blocking my way back down. His shirtsleeves were rolled up to the elbow, and the way his forearms flexed had me dying to see what his biceps looked like underneath.
“Thank you.” I bit my lip, aware of how his eyes lowered to my mouth as I did so. “I wonder if you might be kind enough to forget what happened back there.”
He gave a low chuckle, and the sound went straight to my core. If I didn’t get away from him soon, I was going to end up jumping him right here on the stairs.
“It’s our little secret.”
I gave him a grateful nod. “I owe you.”
“Careful,” he warned. “I’ll hold you to that.”
What I would give to find out what that entailed.
He turned to leave, and I admired his perfectly shaped backside for all of three seconds before I heard the buzz of a security camera turning over my head. I don’t know how I’d missed it before, but I couldn’t say I was altogether too sorry now.
It wasn’t until I returned to the top of the stairs that I realized I hadn’t even asked his name.
Maxim Stein arrived on the veranda exactly fifteen minutes later, wearing a terry-cloth robe and leather sandals. The pictures in the cottage study had paled in comparison to reality; there was a cool confidence in the way he carried himself that couldn’t be captured on camera. His jaw was clean-shaven and set, his gaze appraising. His silver hair was combed back and damp—maybe that meant he’d washed off following his romp with the redhead, but I doubted it. Power, wealth, and status seemed to ooze off him. As he approached, I was surprised he wasn’t much more than four or five inches taller than me—he carried himself like someone who was used to looking down on others.
I found myself shrinking, unable to look him in the eye. All I could think of were his bare legs and grunts of pleasure as he had plowed into his demanding redheaded mistress from behind. When it was clear he didn’t know I’d caught him, I exhaled, but remained jittery from all that had just happened.
“The masseuse, I presume,” he said in a flat voice, already removing the robe from his shoulders.
“Anna.” I offered my hand, but he had made his way to the table and was kicking off his sandals.
I cleared my throat, feeling my jaw twitch. Something told me I wasn’t about to get an apology for his late arrival—not that I deserved one. Any thought I’d had of asking him the name of his bodyguard vaporized.
“Please have a seat on the table,” I told him. “I’d like to begin our session with a foot scrub, if that’s all right.”
“Is that included in the price?”
I nearly choked. According to Forbes, Mr. Stein was worth 3.8 billion dollars. If I charged for a foot scrub, which I didn’t, I was pretty sure he could afford it. I doubted he even knew how much he was paying for today’s service anyway.
“Of course,” I said with my best smile. I kneeled before him as he sat down, and moved the water under his pedicured toes. He fished a smartphone out of his pocket and began to scroll through his messages, barely even glancing down as I prepared the salt scrub.
“I just finished working out and didn’t have a chance to shower,” he said as I moved one foot into the basin of warm water. “I hope you don’t mind.”
Right. I forced myself not to look up, aware of the smell of sex now wafting off him as the breeze changed. I nearly gagged; I may have been turned on before, but that had disappeared with Neighborhood Watch.
I finished quickly and offered Maxim the scents to choose from.
He chose cinnamon. Of course.
* * *
When I got back to my car, I was $400 richer and had three messages waiting on my cell phone; two from Amy asking if I’d been kidnapped by rich people, and one from my dad. I called him first, my paycheck celebration momentarily put on pause by the tiredness in his voice.
“Well, if it isn’t my favorite daughter,” he said, answering after the first ring.
“That doesn’t make you any less my favorite,” he pointed out. “What are you doing out so late?”
His handsome face came to mind: green eyes, fair skin, freckles. Big saucer glasses that he wore at the end of the day after he took his contacts out. We looked nothing like each other, a fact that had often drawn stares in my youth. But even though we weren’t related by blood, that didn’t make him any less my father.
I made the final turn out of Davis Island and climbed onto the freeway that would take me to my apartment in Ybor City, right in the heart of the historic district.
“First, it’s only eight thirty,” I told him. “Second, I had a client.”
“First,” he replied, mirroring my tone, “your curfew’s eight. And second, I don’t like you going out to people’s houses so late at night.”
I smiled. “My curfew hasn’t been eight since I was in middle school. I’m twenty-seven, in case you forgot.”
“Stop growing up,” he said. “I’ve had about enough of that.”
His voice fell at the end; we’d reached the boundary of his good mood.
“Yes, sir.” I cleared my voice. “So what’d you do today?” I’d talked to him every day this week. It was a hard one; we’d lost my adoptive mother four years ago to breast cancer. This was their anniversary week. They would have been married thirty-six years.
The sting was gone, though the ache remained. But as much as I missed her, I knew it was so much harder for him. She’d been his whole world.
“I had Tuesday breakfast,” he said, and I was flooded with double-decker-pancake nostalgia, the special at Manny’s Diner where we’d spent every Tuesday morning of my youth. Cincinnati—the place I called home, thanks to my dad—felt a long way away all of a sudden.
He sighed. “And then I went to see my girl.”
I pulled into my parking garage and killed the engine. I couldn’t get out of my car yet; my body felt too heavy. The thought of going out on a date tonight with Randall seemed like an enormous amount of work.
“Yeah?” I could picture my dad going to her grave with a bundle of yellow roses—her favorite—and a bottle of wine. He would sit beside her like he always did, telling her about what he’d done that day, filling her in on any new updates about me, until he ran out of things to say. Then he’d sit in the silence just because he wanted to be close to her.
I couldn’t imagine anyone loving me the way he loved her.
“Maybe . . . Dad, maybe you should try going out.”
He groaned. “The guys have talked me into joining the bowling league. Can you believe that? Thirty years on the force I managed to avoid that crap, and the minute I retire, they talk me into it. Soon I’ll be fat and bald and eating donuts every morning.”
I sincerely doubted it. My dad’s strawberry blond hair may have been a bit more blond than strawberry these days, but he still ran three miles every morning, something he had done as long as I could remember. Though he was afraid of becoming a classic cop cliché, anyone who knew him could have told you he wasn’t really going to give up the job completely. It was too much a part of who he was.
“Good,” I said, glad he was doing something with friends. He hadn’t done much socially since Mom died. “But you know what I meant.”
There was a pause on the line. “I had my time, Anna. Your mom, she was my sweetheart. You don’t get that twice in one life. I was lucky to get it at all.”
My heart hurt. “I just don’t like the thought of you being lonely.”
“I’m not lonely,” he retorted. “I’ve got Mug.”
Mug was his Great Dane, the biggest lap dog I’d ever seen.
“I’ll come home soon,” I told him. I’d already scheduled a follow-up with Mr. Stein next week. A month of this, and I’d definitely have the money for plane fare.
“All right.” His tone lightened. “Mug won’t be happy, though. He’s already taken over your room. You’ll have to sleep on the couch.”
“Love you, Dad.”
“Love you, Anna.”
I nearly called Randall and told him I wasn’t in the mood, but after talking to my dad, I wasn’t sure I wanted to be alone either.
* * *
I’d texted to tell him I’d be late, but when I met Randall at Pho, a Vietnamese fusion restaurant downtown, he was already waiting at the table, mouth tight with impatience. It looked like he’d already ordered and finished an appetizer when I sat down across from him.
He looked up from his cell phone, surprised. I guess he hadn’t seen me come in.
Randall was handsome and he knew it. With his semi-ridiculous dirty blond hair swept across his forehead and dark lashes, he looked more like an ex–boy-band member than a psychologist. He had just the right amount of stubble, which no doubt he’d planned, and wore a beige sweater to complement his brown eyes.
We’d been out only once before, a setup by Amy. On that first date he’d informed me he was in the top one percent of educated Americans, and one of the youngest psychologists in the state with his own private practice. He certainly wasn’t modest, but Amy had convinced me that was just the nerves talking.
“Sorry I’m late,” I said. “A client ran over.”
He finished typing something before replying, and I ordered a glass of red wine, trying not to focus on the fact that this was the second man today who’d chosen to look at his cell phone rather than me when I was talking.
“Thanks, just had to finish that e-mail,” he said, placing the phone in his pocket. “Wow. You look nice.”
Nice wasn’t exactly what I’d been going for in the black skirt, knee-high boots, and turquoise halter top, but from the look on his face I could tell the word didn’t convey what he really thought. He was trying hard not to stare at my cleavage.
Normally I would have been pleased to have him right where I wanted him, but the lust in his eyes barely roused the butterflies in my stomach. Probably just hunger, combined with the call from my dad and thoughts of my mom.
I needed a distraction.
A distraction with penetrating blue eyes, chiseled shoulders, and a dirty mouth.
I’d thought of Mr. Stein’s sexy security guard when I’d picked out my outfit. Originally I’d planned on wearing a bright pink button-up blouse and silver flats, but when I’d thought of those eyes, I’d changed course to something less conventional—an impulse buy I’d picked up last month that I had planned to hand over to a much sassier Amy.
“What’s good here?” I asked, perusing the menu.
“The spring rolls are good,” he said. “Or the shaking beef. That’s what I had.”
I glanced at his plate, which had yet to be cleared. “You already ate dinner?”
He swiped his hair out of his eyes. “Yes, but don’t feel like you have to hurry on my account. My last patient canceled, so I got here a little early.”
Miffed, I leaned back in my chair, noting that the butterflies were beginning to growl. They had their diva moments.
“I’ll just get some spring rolls then,” I said, shifting gears. “So what’s new with Dr. Randall?”
A lot, apparently, was new with Randall. He told me all about his week, his practice, the new insurance billing program that was gouging him, his depressed housewives and alcoholic retirees who’d thought that Florida was going to be everything they’d dreamed it would be—beaches, sunsets, perpetual vacation—only to find it was just like anywhere else but with palm trees and a really hot summer.
I didn’t mind his nonstop chatter; it was better than talking about what was going on with me.
When I’d finished my second glass of wine, the spring rolls, and a bowl of pho, he finally paused for breath.
“I’m boring you,” he said. “I spend so much time listening at work, sometimes it’s nice to have someone else do it for a change.”
“Your practice sounds fascinating,” I said, watching as he again shoved back his hair. I wanted to shove back Neighborhood Watch’s hair. I wanted to grip it with both hands as he kissed me, sliding his tongue between my lips and grinding his hips against mine.
“There are a lot of people out there who are hurting.” He sat forward in his chair. “How about you?”
I felt my spine zip up straight. Randall the date had changed; the tone of his voice softer, more empathetic, his brows furrowed with concern. He was Dr. Randall now, looking for my vulnerabilities.
“I’m sorry?” I had to force my shoulders to relax.
“You have a background in the field, don’t you? I thought that’s what Amy said.”
Of course, that’s what he meant. Relieved to avoid a glimpse into the troubled past of Anna Rossi, I picked up my chopsticks, set them down again. I knew Amy had told him about my last line of work; it was why she’d set us up in the first place. It was just a matter of time before one of us brought it up.
“Sort of,” I acknowledged. “Nothing like your practice.”
“Ah, minimization,” he said, entertained. “The favorite cognitive distortion of all nice people.”
I snickered. “I’m not that nice, believe me.”
He waited. Or rather, used therapeutic silence—a technique I’d learned in college—to let me work through my thoughts. The idea was that it could make even the most stubborn people share.
“Social work,” I said, giving in. “That was a long time ago.” Maybe he wasn’t that bad of a psychologist after all.
“Oh.” His brows flattened as he leaned back in his seat. “Social work. The society of bleeding hearts. What did you do, stamp welfare checks?” He laughed like this was some sort of inside joke.
“Not exactly,” I said stiffly.
He leaned forward, elbows on the table. His fingertips found my hands and began to trail lightly over them.
“That was rude,” he acknowledged without an apology. “I got my Ph.D. so I wouldn’t have to do the dirty work. You’re a better person than I am, Anna.”
A better person wouldn’t have let her personal life leak all over her professional life. A better person wouldn’t have quit.
“I don’t know about that,” I said. “There were a lot of kids I couldn’t help.” Strange that after all this time I could still see their faces and feel like a failure.
“You can’t save everyone.” He made a face. “All those crack babies and abusive parents fighting over custody. Sounds like a nightmare. No wonder you burned out.”
He made the same assumption most people did—that child protective services was only about snatching babies out of bad homes, not about bringing families back together, and that I couldn’t stand the heat. The truth was, that kind of work hit too close to home, but I wasn’t about to open that can of worms here and now.
I subtly pulled my hands away and waved to the waiter for the check. It was almost eleven, and the place was going to be closing soon. One of the downfalls of being a masseuse was a lot of late hours. Psychologists also set their own schedules, and as Randall informed me, he enjoyed sleeping in and seeing clients in the afternoon and evening.
We could have worked. If I’d felt something.
“Well,” I said. “Nothing lasts forever.”
“One check or two?” interrupted the waiter, a cute artsy guy around eighteen.
“Two,” said Randall without looking up.
The water raised a brow at me.
“Two checks would be perfect,” I said.
* * *
Having known I was going to have a glass of wine, I’d taken the trolley to Channelside and walked the rest of the way. It was late, and downtown was fairly quiet on weeknights, so I decided to wait for a cab.
I turned to say good-bye, ready to cut ties, when Randall invaded my personal space and kissed me.
For one flash of a moment I wavered and considered taking him to bed. Randall would be a good lover, if maybe a little selfish. He had a nice body—one hardened by treadmills and free weights and personal trainers, no doubt. He’d keep me from thinking about my family and, best of all, he’d be easy to push out the door in the morning.
But I couldn’t shake the memory of another man’s body pressing mine up against a bookcase. I couldn’t get those piercing eyes or his voice out of my head. I couldn’t stop thinking about what he would feel like, driving into me as I scratched my nails down his back.
Randall seemed like a poor substitute, and it wasn’t fair to lead him on.
Too late to fully escape, I turned, and his lips found the corner of mine. They were waxy with Chapstick and stuck a little as I tried to pull away. His eyes were already closed, and my nose itched a little from the overpowering smell of his cologne.
The butterflies in my belly yawned. They made a big, dramatic show of it.
“I like a woman with curves,” he said, giving my hips a little squeeze. “More to hold on to.”
Translation: You’re not skinny, but you have nice boobs.
Carefully, I placed my hands on his chest and eased back. I may not have been a Calvin Klein model, but I’d be damned if I didn’t look good filling out a size eight.
“Why don’t you let me give you a ride home?” Randall wove his fingers together behind my lower back, latching me in place. “Better yet, why don’t you come over?”
I pulled away, placing a hand on his forearm. “I think it’s better I didn’t.”
The poor guy looked genuinely confused by this.
“Did I misinterpret what was happening here?”
“If you thought this would end in me spending the night, then yes,” I said.
“Oh, come on,” he said, reaching again to push the hair out of his eyes. I couldn’t believe Amy had agreed to give him that terrible haircut. “When you put on that outfit, you didn’t think you’d be spending the night too?”
My gaze narrowed. I had been thinking about spending the night with someone, just not him.
“Don’t make this ugly,” I said.
“What?” he asked, and then threw his shoulders back. “You know what, forget it. Have a great night. I should have offered a tip if I wanted a happy ending.”
“A tip?” I asked, hip cocked out. “You didn’t even buy me dinner.”
The light from the restaurant revealed the color rising in his cheeks.
“And spare me the masseuse jokes,” I added. “I’ve heard them all before.”
I left him standing in front of his white Lexus, nervously glancing around to make sure no one was within earshot.